The other day, my 14-year-old granddaughter, Julia, who serves as my weather vane for things that go viral on social media, showed me a YouTube post. “What’s this about, Lolo?” she asked. It was a video clip of a scantily clad female dancer doing what looks like the “twerk” with a man in a yellow shirt. Photos of Liberal Party presidential contender Mar Roxas and of senatorial aspirant Francis Tolentino, both speaking from a podium, frame the video.
“Oh, that looks like someone doing the twerk,” I replied, with a knowing air. “Yah, that’s obvious,” she said. “I mean, what was the occasion? Why was Mar Roxas there?” My sophisticated apo, who is well-informed about cultural trends, clearly knew little about Philippine political culture and the obligatory space it gives to entertainment.
“It was the birthday party of a congressman from Laguna,” I told her, “and the event was used as the occasion to swear in new recruits to the Liberal Party, whose presidential bet is Mar Roxas. Maybe Mar was there as a birthday guest and to administer the oath to the new LP members.” “Oh,” Julia said, sounding even more perplexed. “What do they swear to, and why are those guys dancing the twerk?”
“It’s a long story; I’ll tell you about it later,” I said, wanting to end the conversation so I could go back to my writing. But, her questions perturbed me. I ended up devoting the rest of the morning to a reflection on the relationship between politics and entertainment. Reviewing the video clip on YouTube, I began to wonder which was more obscene: participatory “twerking” at a political event or the mass swearing in of political party recruits during the election season?
The twerk is a sexually suggestive dance form that features gyrating and thrusting hip movements, usually from a low squatting stance. Some say the term, which nearly made it as the 2013 Oxford Dictionary Online’s word of the year, is a combination of two words: “twist” and “jerk.” Evolving from African-American hip-hop culture, this dance has apparently been around since the 1990s, predating the American pop performer Miley Cyrus’ March 2013 Facebook post showing her in a raunchy twerking routine. That particular video made the twerk Miley Cyrus’ signature act. And although the dance in its original form was not meant to suggest anything necessarily sexual, its more provocative versions have increasingly become sexually explicit.
I suppose this sexual explicitness becomes more pronounced where it is least expected. The propriety of actions is relative to the occasion and to the persons performing them. If Rep. Benjamin Agarao’s birthday party had been a private closed-door affair, the entertainment provided by the dancing group “The Playgirls” might not have caused as much public furor as it has. But this was billed as a political event featuring the swearing in of new Liberal Party members. The media covered it and chose to focus on the unpleasant side of the entertainment act, rather than on the increasingly meaningless ritual of mass oath-taking for new party members.
What perhaps made it worse was the participation of the new yellow-shirted recruits in the dance routine itself. Pulled onto the stage by the dancers, they at first looked like shy clients who, quickly overcoming their hesitation, gamely participated in an explicit reenactment of the sexual act. As my granddaughter innocently mused: What does all that twerking have to do with the serious business of oath-taking that is supposed to have brought them there?
Entertainment has, of course, always been a part of our political life, and, indeed, it’s often difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The name of the game is to assemble large crowds and make them stay, and nothing seems to attract them more than the presence of movie and television celebrities and hired performers who sing and dance between speeches. But, even while politicians consciously strike a balance between being taken seriously and being game at singing and dancing, they don’t seem to pay as much attention to the public’s reaction to entertainment numbers rendered at these events by paid performers.
In this regard, senatorial aspirant Tolentino, who chairs the Metro Manila Development Authority, may have abused the blurred lines between politics and entertainment by bringing in his twerking dancers to political gatherings. He denies bringing the Playgirls to that LP oath-taking in Laguna. But then it’s not the first time the presence of the group has been noted at a political meeting. More than a week ago, at the general assembly of the League of Municipalities of the Philippines, held at the Manila Hotel, the same dancers were seen entertaining the delegates, wearing skimpy tops that bannered Tolentino’s name across their chests.
I don’t know if the much-criticized MMDA chair thinks voters might view him more positively by his association with sexy dancers than by his explanations of Metro Manila’s problems. But, it’s incredible that any politician could honestly believe that people might take him more seriously if his speeches were preceded by a sexy dance routine. Just because voters are easily drawn to the glitter and noise of political campaigns does not mean they don’t care about substance.
I wonder who else the Liberal Party is drafting in its senatorial slate. Surely, Mar Roxas must be aware that politicians who comport themselves like barkers at a vaudeville stage do nothing to reflect the vision of high-minded statesmanship that is supposed to be the hallmark of his presidential bid.
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